The Protective Hamsa

The Protective Hamsa March 11, 2021

I mentioned the hamsa a long time ago in this blog, I’ve wanted to have one for longer, and it wasn’t until recently that I got it in the form of a bracelet. I’ve been using it every day when I am out, only taking it off when I could get my hands dirty or I am home again. I’ve felt calmer and more comfortable, but I also wanted to know more about it and how to use it.

“Irrespective of the culture that it was adopted, the symbol of hamsa was believed to offer defense against the evil eye”. Image by Irina Ilina from Pixabay. Cropped.

Where does it come from?

For a short answer, we can consider that Christensen (2021) explains:

A hamsa is a type of charm, symbol or talisman that is commonly used by people of the Islamic and Jewish faiths, although members of other faiths might use it as well. Also called a hamesh hand, it looks like a hand that has three fingers pointing upward and the thumb and pinkie finger pointing outward. The palm of the hand is commonly covered with an eye. This symbol is thought to ward off “the evil eye” and offer protection from the hand of God.

Sayed (2016, pp: 23), on the other side, gets more specific:

The Hamsa is basically a palm-shaped amulet popular all over the Middle East as well as North Africa. The shape depicts the open right hand that has been documented and used as a symbol of protection throughout history in different cultures. Irrespective of the culture that it was adopted, the symbol of hamsa was believed to offer defense against the evil eye. In accordance to the historical facts, its origins are found in Carthage (modern-day Tunisia) closely associated with the Goddess Tanit. The Phoenicians represented Tanit, the patron goddess of their capital Carthage and controller of the lunar cycle through depicting a hand. Over the course of history, her hand became a defensive amulet or talisman to ward off the evil eye. Later on, the symbol was embraced as the Hand of Maryam by the ancient Sephardic Jewish community spreads across the Iberian Peninsula.

I also find it interesting that “It stands for the Five Pillars of Islam for Sunnis and the Five People of the veil (Prophet’s Family for Shiites). Despite the fact that the Hamsa symbol is associated with Islamic cultures, the Qur’an law prohibits the wearing of charms and amulets.” (Sayed, 2016, pp: 24). We can also add that, after a quick reading, Tanit was a Goddess related to war, virginity, motherhood, nursing, and fertility. I could also find that it called “Hand of Fatima” after the daughter of the Muslim prophet Muhammad, Fatimah bint Muhammad, commonly known as Fāṭimah al-Zahrāʾ, who worked hard, remained humble, and devoted herself to her family in many ways.

“While it could be seen as a symbol present in different cultures, maybe of flexible meaning, I suggest staying with the Eastern meaning”. Image by Please Don’t sell My Artwork AS IS from Pixabay. Cropped.

Only an Arabic symbol?

I’ve seen some people drawing comparisons with the Egyptian Mano Pantea (El-Azhary Sonbol, 2005), and citing its appearance in Kabbalistic manuscripts and amulets (Rubin, 2010). One could also argue a similarity between the hamsa and the Hindu mudras. While it could be seen as a symbol present in different cultures, maybe of flexible meaning, I suggest staying with the Eastern meaning.

In addition to this, it is interesting that its fingers can be shown apart from one another to protect, together to bring good luck, pointing up to defend, and pointing down to bless and heal. (Gomez, 1996). Although it seems to be a modern interpretation to me, I can see the logic behind it and I don’t see any reason for it not to work.

Finally, as a personal appreciation, I would suggest always using a hamsa that also includes the Nazar, an Arabic amulet against the evil eye, which is how I see it more often than not. I also have my reservations regarding artistic representations of this symbol, some of them being very abstract. I don’t have a problem with this symbol being altered a little if it retains its meaning, but taking it out of its context shouldn’t be a practice.

“I’m the only man so far in my family, maybe also between the countrymen I know, but nobody told me anything about it but how pretty it i”. Image by sunburntaloe from Pixabay. Cropped.

How to use it?

After some reading and remembering, the easiest way to use the hamsa is to wear it. Be it in clothes, in jewelry, tattoos, or any other option, having it with you is enough for it to work. As with the Nazar, I suggest staying with the traditional blue and white coloring, although it has also been used in gold and silver. (Badawi, 2004).

My bracelet has a black cord, and while there are nothing and no one saying it should always be like that, I think it would be the best option along with red due to its meaning in the Arabic world (Hasan, Al-Sammerai and Kadir, 2011, p: 209):

a. Colour basic meaning = red (+)
The primary symbolisms of red are blood and red rose (Houghton, 2007).
b. Extended meaning = love, passion (+)
In the Arabic culture, it is clear from the extended meaning of this colour that the colour red implies positive
meanings, as explained earlier.
c. Abstract meaning (+ -)
i.Arab flag logo = as revolutionary army, brave army.
ii.Red cheeks = shy.
iii.Red eye = anger

As a wall hanging, I’ve seen it used in the main entrance of many Arab homes, in the living room, sometimes even in bedrooms. As jewelry, it is particularly popular among women, almost always using it as a necklace, but when I asked my grandmother about it she told me anyone can use it. While she was referring to both men and women, I don’t see why anyone out of the binary gender system could not.

However, we’re speaking about a hand. In any case, if the need arises, we have two, and we can also visualize it or create a chant based on it as I did when I just listened to my Ancestors. For me, the hamsa is a special symbol and carries a meaning of strength, passion, love, and courage. My grandmother never wore it, but many women in my family have, particularly my cousins. I’m the only man so far in my family, maybe also between the countrymen I know, but nobody told me anything about it but how pretty it is, and I agree with them, only that for me is more than just a protective bracelet.

 

References:

  • Badawi, C. (2004). Egypt. Bath: Footprint.
  • Christensen, T. (2021). What is a Hamsa?. [online] wiseGEEK. Available at: <https://www.wisegeek.com/what-is-a-hamsa.htm> [Accessed 11 March 2021].
  • El-Azhary Sonbol, A. (ed). (2005). Beyond the Exotic: Women’s Histories in Islamic Societies. United Kingdom: Syracuse University Press.
  • Gomez, Aurelia (1996). Crafts of Many Cultures: 30 Authentic Craft Projects from Around the World. Scholastic Inc.
  • Hasan, A., Al-Sammerai, N. and Kadir, F. (2011). How Colours are Semantically Construed in the Arabic and English Culture: A Comparative study. English Language Teaching, 4(3), pp: 206-2013.
  • Rubin, N. A. (2010). Magical and Mystical Mysterious World of Jewish incantations, spells, magic and curses. [online] Jewishmag.com. Available at: <http://jewishmag.com/144mag/superstition_magic/superstition_magic.htm> [Accessed 11 March 2021].
  • Sayed, N. A. (2016). The Hand of Hamsa: Interpretation across the Globe. Hand, 6(20).
About Bader Saab
I’m an Arabic witch and journalist, also with a master’s degree in digital research. I have worked as a book reviewer and written about pre-Islamic folklore. You can connect with me by Private Message on Instagram: @saab.bader. You can read more about the author here.

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